BCO opens risky 13th season

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Bahman Saless doesn’t hesitate to take on Brahms with a chamber orchestra.
Courtesy of Boulder Chamber Orchestra

Unlike high-end hotels, Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) do not shy away from the bad luck associated with the number 13.

In fact they are embracing the risk, calling their upcoming 13th season “Jinx” and boldly ending the season with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work that has its own implied curse. In a concert titled “Ode to Joy,” the BCO will join forces with the Boulder Chorale to perform the Ninth May 5 in Macky Auditorium, with additional performances in Lakewood May 6 and Lone Tree May 7.

The rest of the season, subtitled “The Curse of the Ninth,” includes violinist Karen Bentley Pollick playing the American premiere of a new concerto by David Jaffee (Nov. 11 and 12); a guest appearance by CU opera music director Nicholas Carthy, conducting and playing Mendelssohn and Mozart (Dec. 10 and 11); BCO’s annual New Year’s eve concert; the return of violinist Lindsay Deutsch (Feb. 10 and 11); another returning soloist, percussionist Rony Barrak (April 7, 8 and 9); and several smaller concerts through the season (details at boulderchamberorchestra.com).

The so-called “Curse of the Ninth” has been a danger mostly for composers. The real risk for the BCO may be the fact that Beethoven’s Ninth demands a certain weight from the orchestra, and Macky Auditorium is a big space for a small orchestra.

Stretching the chamber orchestra repertoire is nothing new for Saless and the BCO: recent seasons have included large Romantic concertos by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And this weekend’s opening concert of the 2016–17 season (Friday in Broomfield, Saturday in Boulder) includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, a staple for full-sized symphonies.

To be clear, Saless has no hesitation in taking on Brahms with a chamber orchestra.

“Brahms is like a gigantic string quartet,” he says. “The colors will be different if you don’t have 35 string players, but the music works just as well. When we did the Second Piano Concerto of Brahms last year, the orchestra sounded great.”

Saless titled the concert “The Elephant in the Room,” referring to the influence of Beethoven on Brahms’ First Symphony. In addition to Brahms, the program features violinist Yabing Tan playing two virtuoso pieces from the Romantic era, the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns and Henryk Wieniawski’s Second Concerto.

And Saless, hints, there will be a surprise for Saturday’s Boulder performance. “John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, is going to conduct! He’s going to kick off our season with…” But Saless prefers not to reveal the piece.

After Tayer’s surprise kickoff, the first half of the concert will comprise the two performances by Tan. Appear-ing with the BCO as the winner of the Classic Alive Artists Competition, Tan is currently a doctoral student in violin at the University of Southern California.

The first piece on the announced program, Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, is one of the best known show pieces for violinists. “It’s a great piece,” Saless says. “I was raised on stuff like that, because I played the violin.”

Tan modestly admits that it is a difficult piece. “It’s not so easy to play,” she says. “It’s a little bit harder than the concerto. But if you practice for years and hours, or perform it many times, then it’s not so hard any more.”

Although it is not as well known to audiences, the Wieniawski second is familiar to violinists because many of them learn it as one of their first concertos. “I played this when I was around 14 or so,” Tan says.

The score offers an attractive combination of lyrical Romanticism and rapid, showy passages for the soloist. “It’s definitely one of the great concertos,” Tan says. “Compared to other concertos, such as Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, it is easier for technique, but it also has beautiful melodies.

“The piece is easy for audiences to get involved, because it’s so melodic and has great segments that bring out the very best of the violin. I think it will be a lot of fun for the audience.”

The second half of the program is devoted to Brahms’ First and the “elephant in the room.” It is well known that Brahms felt a heavy responsibility following in Beethoven’s footsteps. He took many years to complete the symphony, and he wrote a particularly serious and complex work. Directly facing Beethoven’s legacy, he even based the final movement on a theme that clearly recalls the theme of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Saless says the point of using such a similar theme was that Brahms could first acknowledge Beethoven’s legacy, then go his own way. After stating the theme, “Brahms just goes crazy with his counterpoint,” Saless says. “It’s like, OK, Beethoven is forgotten, now this is me.

“I think that’s really cool.”

On the Bill: Boulder Chamber Orchestra: “The Elephant in the Room.” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, Broomfield Auditorium, 3 Community Park Road, Broomfield. 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, Boulder Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton Ave., Boulder.